Spring was supposed to be a busy season for Jonathan Berlin. As a touring member of very famous folk duo JOHNNYSWIM’s backing band, Berlin was to be on the road from February until late July. There was also other music to tend to–writing songs, producing, mixing, and mastering for a whole host of local and regional artists, even pressing wax for many others at his Vinyl Record Pressing in Atlantic Beach.
But despite a cancelled road jaunt, Berlin–who through the various musical roles outlined previously supports more Northeast Florida artists than anyone–has remained productive. His press is still cranking out vinyl. He’s working with his ever-growing slate of musical collaborators and co-conspirators remotely (via ZOOM, how else?). And Berlin’s solo nom de plume, Sunbears!, even awoke from an extended hibernation, as he’s been releasing a steady stream of atmospheric, electronic instrumental music that’s been received, as intended, as a welcome sedative during otherwise anxious times.
As the title of the new Sunbears! collection–Everything is Good–suggests, Berlin is taking this whole thing in stride. We asked him about making music in the time of COVID-19 and tried to get the recipe for his secret, optimism-infused sauce.
How are things with the Sunbears! sleuth? Apparently that’s what a group of bears is called. How’s the fam holding up during this madness?
A sleuth!? I didn’t know about that! It almost sounds like a slew of bears, but maybe the King James version? Anyway, Maria (my wife), the Suncub, and I are holding up just fine. We’ve all got matching facemasks now. Pretty cool! We have also become master navigators of the Riverside Publix’s aisles, keeping that social distance of six feet-minimum. The one real major adjustment has been having our son home from school during this time and having to homeschool him. I was actually homeschooled most of my childhood, so it brings back a lot of memories for me. However, Maria has been a hero with Z and is really stepping up to teach. I also have to commend our 2nd grade teacher for doing such an incredible job keeping us all on track remotely and doing virtual class meetings and all. It’s been a lot for everyone to get used to, but we are, at the same time, excited about the opportunity to homeschool as well. All of that mixed with keeping our photography, vinyl, and music business going.
You’ve got a lot going on it sounds like. Let’s go down the list. How’s the record press doing? Am I right to assume there is a high demand from artists who’d love to get their records out right now since they can’t tour?
Yeah! There have been a few artists that we are pressing for that are trying to really take advantage of the downtime, indeed. But there is also the flip side to that where we get the email that says the client needs to wait until later to move forward. It’s all very unprecedented. The vinyl record manufacturing community is in a tough spot because of COVID, especially coming off of the heels of the Apollo Lacquer and Stylus factory fire earlier in the year. Apollo Lacquers manufactures 80% of the world’s master lacquer blanks, the first piece required to manufacture your album. But we are all doing our best to overcome. I feel fortunate to be an owner of a smaller, kind-of DIY, punk rock record factory. We have a great team of people over at VRP. These major issues, thankfully, haven’t affected us too much yet. So we’ll keep pressing on!
And is mixing/mastering/writing/producing keeping you busy as well? Working on anything for others that you’re particularly excited about?
When I’m home, and I’m home a lot right now, mastering is my main focus. Working on producing a couple of artists right now, but a little hard to do so when we really shouldn’t be together at this time. So working via email, sending ideas back and forth, facetime and zoom calls, you know? I’m excited about the new Trella EP that I’ll be mastering very soon (releasing in June). There’s also a new artist called “Easy Company” that just released their first single “She Said (I Love You)”, which I really love. I’ve been working with a lot of Jacksonville artists too: Strangerwolf, Banquet, Folk Is People, Dean Winter and the Heat, Jesabel, The Young Step, LYNN, LPT, and Jacob Hudson. There’s so much great music coming out of this city right now.
Let’s talk about Everything is Good. You’ve been dropping these atmospheric, electronic instrumentals at a regular clip over the last few weeks. What was the initial motivation and are you still in the same head space as when you dropped the first song of this project?
My headspace for this project kind of just came out of wanting to create some little tunes to which I could just relax–relax while listening to them, of course, but also just have a low pressure experience creating them as well. Sometimes you find a great set of chord changes, the right synth sound, and the perfect beat and you just want to let it loop forever, that’s something that happens in the studio a lot. So I wanted to capture that and just put it out casually. Also, these tunes are kind of just glorified demos. And maybe they turn into something bigger song-wise. They are a sketchbook at best. So don’t go calling me out if I rip myself off later on from these tunes!
Also, have you gotten David Luckin’s attention, yet? Electro Lounge needs these songs!
I have no idea! Probably not? Would be so cool, though! Been an Electro Lounge listener for years.
You’ve stayed productive despite the shutdown, and in spite of whatever anxiety seems to be consuming the world en masse. What’s in the secret sauce?
I’m not going to pretend for one second that I have somehow risen above the anxiety of this whole COVID mess. I was supposed to be on tour with JOHNNYSWIM from Feb through late July and it’s all been postponed for the year and TBD for a later date, 2021. That’s a lot of work that basically just vanished for me and for all of us on that tour. I came home after only a couple weeks of tour and remember thinking, “OK, I think we can make it to the end of the month and then hopefully this will all be over and I can get back to tour.” But here we are! So I’ve just been trying to do something, anything, each day. If I don’t have an album to master, then I’m going to write and record a song, or get creative with another artist. I’m not sure what the secret sauce is. I’m just keeping as busy as I can, trying my best to take care of myself and my family through all of this because that’s the most important part. Wake up, get dressed, write a song, bake some bread, cook some meals and stay home.
This feature originally appeared in Void Magazine’s May 2020 issue, The Check In. For more interviews with artists, musicians, and the eternally optimistic, click the mag below.